(This is an updated version of a post I first publish on Feb 28, 2012 — “Why Real Love Is So Difficult & Rare“)
“We have lost our sense of values: when your fence falls, you mend it; when your friendship fails, you run.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
Real love is something we do. It is not a feeling–it’s not primarily (or even secondarily) something we feel. Real love is much more about being loving than being loved or feeling loving or loved.
If more people bought into this, practiced this, and lived this way, then imagine what the world would be like today. Imagine how much better life would be if people were guided by Love as principle.
But to be genuinely Loving requires a lot of personal growth and inner rewiring on our part. It takes effort—real effort. It’s not easy. If becoming more Loving were easy, then everyone would be doing it.
In order to become more genuinely loving we have to overcome some fairly daunting default wiring that focuses each of us more on the quality and amount of what we’re receiving (input) rather than on the quality and frequency of what we’re giving (output, our own actions and the quality of those actions).
Self-preservation—in all its forms—is something that has been hardwired and embedded deep into each of us.
As is laziness—the path of least resistance, the lust for comfort and ease—in all its forms.
To become more genuinely Loving, we will have to become more self-aware of our own actions and outputs and the quality and frequency of these, as well as the intentions behind these. We will have to become better able to monitor ourselves and our behaviors.
We means we will have to become aware of our laziness and self-preservative tendencies. And then we’ll have to actually do something about these things and remedy them.
We’re up against some pretty daunting odds. Bias (egocentric-ness) and laziness are hard-wired into us.
Monitoring ourselves, paying attention, being very aware, going the extra mile, doing difficult things–these behaviors and characteristics (character qualities) are not hard-wired into us. They have to be learned and practiced, and practiced again and again and again, fine-tuned, nurtured, grown, engrained and deeply internalized.
To learn how to genuinely Love, we will each have to learn to go against the grain, against our own nature, act different from what comes natural to most of us most of the time.
Because real Love is effortful, real Love is often difficult; real Love takes work, requires attention, dedication, requires inner work—requires us to work on ourselves and in many ways significantly rewire parts of our self. And this is an ongoing and lengthy process.
Which yet another reason why real Love is so rare—because it is so difficult for us to learn certain things, grow in a certain direction.
Real Love requires that we confront and deal with and overcome our own laziness, irrational fears, tendency to get bored easily, tendency to be impulsive and reactive, tendency to think in discursive ways, tendency to not to want to think–thinking criticially and deeply, after all, takes effort; and one of the biggest pains to deal with in life is the pain of a new idea. Thinking widely and honestly and deeply is not something that most of us want to do, let alone embrace and make a way of life. The examined life is not for us–at least not the vast majority of us.–
And if the examined life is not for us, then that will automatically compromise and limit how Loving we can be and become.
In order to become more genuinely loving and able to actually produce Love—to love another, and not just be loved or receive love—we will each have to learn many habits that are simply not natural for us.
And if we fail to learn these habits, we will not be able to genuinely Love.
To learn how to love we will each have to learn for ourselves how to begin thinking about more than just “what’s in it for me?” and quid pro quo. We will have to learn how to begin extending ourselves, turning the other cheek, taking one for the team, walking mile after extra mile.
We will also have to begin focusing more on the quality and frequency of what we’re giving (which may hurt our pride), as well as really begin seeing what another or others are actually giving us or doing for us (if another was loving someone else like this, would their efforts be considered loving?).
Most people—most of us?—when we/they “love,” love in a fairly lazy and stingy and ungrateful way—giving just enough to keep the flow of getting.
But how often do we look at ourselves and really take stock of ourselves? How often do we look at the quality of what we are giving and the quality of what we are receiving and do so in an objective and unbiased (and thus an actually honest instead of dishonest) way?
Loving is not natural. It’s not what we naturally do; it’s not how we naturally behave.
And I know that some people may object to this characterization, I know that that statement runs contrary to what is found in many New Age books and runs counter to what those offering cheap grace are preaching and would like us to believe—that deep down only love is real, and fear and hate are unreal, that deep down all we are is love.
But the reality is that love is not just a feeling or an intention. Love is a behavior, something demonstrable; it is a way of life and of interacting with and engaging the world. And thus all we are is not simply love.
If deep down we were only truly Loving, then would we really be mucking up things so badly in our personal relationships and as a society?
Love is a potent force; it breaks down walls sometimes, gentles them at other times. But love tries, invests, overcomes, extends itself, focuses on truth and goodness and growth–and on encouraging these in others.
The truth is that deep down we each have some pretty deeply embedded selfish and lazy (i.e. narcissistic, self-centered, impulsive, emotional, and non-thinking) tendencies. We have been hardwired by nature to preserve ourselves (self-preservation) and to “look out for number one” even at the expense of those closest to us.
We may each have some original goodness to us, but we also each have a lot of original badness or selfishness and “the world revolves around me“-ness to us—some potentially pretty heinous nonsense going on in each of us. We all have to deal with fear and shame/pride and laziness.
And until we do, and until we become self-aware of these negatives within us, our ability to Love will be very limited and easily compromised.
We each have to battle these negatives within us—that’s the daily, moment to moment ongoing battle that each of us must fight—a war against our own laziness, pride, fear, inadequacy, closed-mindedness, naïveté, and avoidant/escapist tendencies and patterns.
That’s the “wooden beam” we each must wrestle with and wittle away at.And we cannot do this—separate wheat from chaff, crooked from straight—within ourselves unless we are self-aware and deeply committed to leading a very mindful and examined (including self-examined and self-confronting) life.
And to fail to commit to this—to fail to begin learning how to better confront ourselves and our own blindness, selfishness, ego, impulsiveness—is to lose the battle already and fail from the start at learning how to genuinely Love.
Many, many people are simply not up to or interested in confronting or facing themselves. They are not interested in real self-knowledge or real self-understanding—in facing themselves and what they’ve done and become and confronting themselves honestly about their patterns and denial and avoidance mechanisms. Most people are not interested in wrestling diligently with themselves about who they are becoming—who they are becoming by the choices they are making today, right now—the choices of how to act, what to eat, what to read, what to right about, what to think about, how to think, and whether to try and be deeply aware of their own thinking and the seeds they are sowing right now, now, now. . . .
The truth is that deep down we—some of us, perhaps many of us—may be fairly warm, affectionate, kind, caring, empathetic, compassionate. And these qualities may get covered over through the harshness of this world, through heartbreak, through bad parenting—other people’s lack of love can wound and mangle us.
And unless we go inward and really begin looking at ourselves and trying to discover for ourselves what the truth of all of this is in regards to ourselves and try to begin dealing with it (healing it, neutralizing it, correcting it, et cetera), then our “love” will be much less loving than it could be and will have a greater or lesser potentially mangling effect on those we try to “love.”
. “To love without knowing how to love,
. wounds the person we love.”
– Thích Nhất Hạnh
Seeking out and going through therapy with a really good and loving therapist may allow us to release the pain of our past and confront and remove many of our blocks to the warm and nurturing emotions we have or once had within us and live life with a more open heart.
Yet that is not enough–reclaiming and re-accessing our inner warmth and goodness.
As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us (paraphrasing): “A soft heart offers us no protection against a soft mind.”
Thus even if we reach a place where we are (once again) much more warm-hearted, affectionate, empathetic, compassionate, caring, kind, we are still not yet loving.
Loving requires more.
Genuine loving requires a wise and discerning mind; it requires an explosive growth in terms of our own self-knowledge, wisdom, insight, and discernment. When we are on the road to becoming truly Loving, we are constantly learning, noticing, reflecting, paying attention, observing, examining ourselves, digging ever deeper into ourselves and uncovering our underlying motives and fundamental assumptions and payoffs.
When we are on the path to becoming more truly Loving, we are at the same time becoming psychologists and philosophers in the truest sense—philosophers, meaning “lovers of wisdom,” and psychologists—meaning students dedicated to studying and learning about the workings of the soul/mind as well as the human heart.
Until we become dedicated students of human nature—and especially studying our own nature—and committed to learning without ceasing about others and ourselves and our own patterns and tendencies and biases (as well about what it means to be mentally healthy and be fully born as a human being), we will not Love very well. Until we become dedicated fully and continuously to becoming wiser, more insightful, more honest, more objective, more clear-headed and rigorous in our thinking, our Love will not be very deep and reliable.
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
( – Czeslaw Milosz, “Love”)
Real love is much more than a feeling. Real love requires that we overcome loving reactively and in a quid pro quo or tit for tat, like for like, way. Real love also requires that we take on and deal with many of our lazy and selfish tendencies—our receptive and unproductive and parasitic/dependent tendencies.
Genuine love also requires that we be able to give wisely, judiciously, discerningly, as well as consistently—that we be able to not just invest ourselves (which is hard enough), but that we be able to extend ourselves beyond what would make sense to most people and their/the conventional wisdom—that we learn how to Love in a less conventional and more profound way, and in more extreme (outside our comfort zone) situations. In other words, that we learn how to Love difficult people, unsightly people, people who we think may not deserve our love or time or attention—people where we think our time and efforts may be water down the drain. To Love genuinely requires that we learn how to Love, period.
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can.”
– Thomas Merton, “Disputed Questions,” pg. 125.